Act One: The Prophet and the Pariah, 1960–1993
The annus mirabilis of African independence in 1960 saw the birth of Nigeria amid great hopes that a political and economic giant could take its preordained place in the African sun. In the same year, South Africa was about to be expelled from the Commonwealth for the killing of 69 unarmed blacks in Sharpeville. South Africa’s foreign policy, like Nigeria’s, was paradoxically suffused with a missionary zeal. While Nigeria advocated economic development, apartheid’s leaders talked patronisingly about their country having special responsibilities to spread Western values north of the Limpopo. In the three decades that followed, both countries failed to achieve their leadership aspirations for very different reasons.
In the case of Nigeria, its attempts at seeking greater political influence in West Africa through economic means were frustrated by France, which encouraged francophone states to create rival trade blocs.
South Africa, by contrast, dominated the Southern African Customs Union and established, alongside Botswana, Swaziland, and Lesotho, the common market that eluded West Africa. But since South Africa was diplomatically isolated and forced to bear the brunt of international sanctions, Nigeria was the prophet, South Africa the pariah.
Nigeria attended meetings of the Frontline States of Southern Africa, chaired the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid, and hosted a UN antiapartheid conference.
After Nelson Mandela’s release from jail in 1990, he visited Nigeria to express his gratitude, and received a $10 million campaign contribution for the African National Congress. There were great expectations that these developments would mark the birth of a strong alliance between Africa’s two economic powerhouses.
Act Two: King Baabu and the Avuncular Saint, 1994–1998
These hopes were soon dashed by the unexpected souring of relations between Abuja and Tshwane (Pretoria). It is important to understand the two protagonists in the second act of this drama: General Sani Abacha and Nelson Mandela. In his 2002 play King Baabu, Nigerian Nobel literature laureate, Wole Soyinka, depicted Baabu as a brutish and corrupt general who exchanges his military attire for a monarchichal robe. The play is a thinly disguised satire of General Abacha’s debauched rule between 1993 and his death in 1998. In power, Abacha was ruthless and reclusive, but hardly as inept as the caricature depicted by Soyinka and Nigeria’s political opposition, who greatly underestimated him. Abacha proved to be a political survivor who understood how to control Nigeria’s army and buy off the country’s political class.
Nelson Mandela is the starkest contrast one can imagine to Abacha. An educated, middle-class lawyer and a cosmopolitan anglophile, this Nobel Peace laureate spent 27 years as a political prisoner and embodied his people’s aspirations for a democratic future. Under Abacha’s autocratic rule, it was Nigeria, and not South Africa, that was now facing mounting criticism over its human rights record. Having abandoned its apartheid past, South Africa was widely acknowledged to be the most likely political and economic success story in Africa. The nadir of relations between the countries was reached after the hanging by the Abacha regime of Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his fellow Ogoni campaigners, during the Commonwealth summit in New Zealand in November 1995. Mandela believed he had received personal assurances from Abacha of clemency for the ‘Ogoni nine’ Feeling deeply betrayed, he called for oil sanctions against Abacha’s regime and Nigeria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth. Even Mandela’s status, however, failed to rally regional support against Nigeria. It took a deus ex machina event – Abacha’s sudden death in 1998 – to transform this tale of the prophet and the pariah into a tale of two prophets.
Act Three: The Philosopher-King and the Soldier-Farmer, 1999–2008
Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo assumed the presidencies of their countries in 1999. Mbeki, a Sussex University-trained economist, often wrote his own speeches, fancied himself as a philosopherking who developed the idea of an ‘African Renaissance’, and was widely celebrated as the intellectual father of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. Obasanjo, a career soldier and engineer, established one of Africa’s largest farms in his hometown of Ota upon retirement as military head of state in 1979, before returning as civilian leader 20 years later.
From his first-hand experience as head of the ANC office in Lagos, Mbeki developed much respect for Nigeria’s sense of fierce independence. Both he and Obasanjo worked closely at managing African conflicts and promoting norms of democratic government through the African Union. Bilateral trade increased during this period, with Nigeria becoming South Africa’s largest trading partner in Africa, a relationship now worth $3.6 billion a year. Nigerians, however, complained of predatory behaviour by South African companies, accusing them of prodfiting from the Nigerian market – three times larger than South Africa’s – while refusing to open up their own.
There were also strains in bilateral relations which were addressed by eight binational commission meetings between 1999 and 2000. Annoyed at the di culties experienced by Nigerians in obtaining visas to South Africa, Abuja imposed stricter visa requirements of its own on South Africans. Nigerian diplomats complained about reports of their compatriots as drug-traffickers and criminals in the South African press.
Act Four: The Era of the Khalifas,2209-2012
Khalifa is the term used in northern Nigeria for kings-in-waiting. Two such khalifas – both former deputy presidents – are now presidents of Nigeria and South Africa: Goodluck Jonathan and Jacob Zuma. Both have been accused of weak, indecisive leadership. After the election of Zuma as South Africa’s president in , Tshwane co-operated closely with Angola, having identified it as its key strategic ally. This created tensions with Nigeria by appearing to downgrade the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries. The fact that South Africa is the only African representative in the Group of 20 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) groupings has exacerbated this. There were further disagreements over differing approaches to tackling the conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya in 2011. During the post-election crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria adopted a belligerent stance towards Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to stand down after losing elections. South Africa provocatively sent a warship to the Gulf of Guinea in Nigeria’s traditional West African sphere of influence.
Libya revived diplomatic rivalry. Though both countries voted in the UN Security Council to support the intervention, Nigeria became one of the first African countries to recognise the country’s National Transitional Council. South Africa delayed recognition of the NTC and accused Nato of abusing its mandate in Libya. These damaging disagreements together with the tit-for-tat deportations of each others citizens in March in a row over fake vaccination cards highlight the importance of Abuja and Tshwane re-establishing a common strategic approach if Africa’s voice is to carry weight on the global stage.
Encouragingly, the first meeting of the binational commission in four years took place in May, with both sides agreeing to relax visa requirements. They also agreed to strengthen African regional bodies in the areas of peace, democracy and development. Let’s hope, in the words of the Bard, that all’s well that ends well.
Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War; and UN Peacekeeping in Africa.